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Globe Editorial

Obama: Up from the basement

March 8, 2011

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John Adams had a mansion in Quincy. John F. Kennedy had a compound in Hyannis. Barack Obama has the basement apartment in Somerville where he lived while attending Harvard Law School in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Two years ago, Somerville aldermen approved a resolution asking the city to designate Obama’s building at 365 Broadway, in the Winter Hill neighborhood better known for organized crime, with a commemorative marker. But the city hasn’t moved, and neither has Obama’s former landlord, John K. Holmes, who remembers fixing the future president’s dishwasher and getting his electricity repaired.

“I’m kind of waiting for his legacy to take shape before I do anything,’’ explains Holmes, who nonetheless says he has pondered what he might put on a plaque — “that he formulated his sense of right and wrong here, that he saw the people of Somerville as hardworking, that he lived in a basement.’’

Obama seemed amused when the idea of a plaque was mentioned to him by Melissa Hurley Sullivan, the wife of the alderman who sponsored the original resolution. So when he visits the Boston area today, the president probably won’t be disappointed to find that his former dive remains unmarked. He might be more struck to learn that the rent — $900 a month when Obama lived there 20 years ago — has barely risen: It’s $1,150 now.

It says as much about the US presidency that one lived in a Somerville basement as that many lived on Virginia plantations. Obama’s place in history is secure, but Holmes is right: Let him build a legacy before beginning the commemorations.